Helion Energy, a startup developing engines powered by nuclear fusion, is certain to pique the interest of sci-fi fans. But the more important question for Helion President Philip Wallace is whether the same can be said of venture capitalists. That’s because the Seattle-based company is on the hunt for $20 million in financing to build a full-scale model of its fusion engine.
That engine, which the company currently has a prototype of at one-third scale, works by forming hot, ionized hydrogen gas. The gas is then electromagnetically accelerated to greater than 1 million mph and collided in a burn chamber to generate enormous amounts of heat energy.
The company’s plan is to sell its technology to new and existing power generation sites. Helion’s engines, once commercially ready, could be used to produce heat in power plants that currently rely on burning coal or natural gas, Wallace said. The heat runs steam turbines that drive generators to produce electricity. “We are very confident that we can out perform all carbon-based energy sources. If we can implement the technology, the economics follow,” he said.
But any venture capitalist that invests with Helion better have patience. Wallace said the full-scale prototype should be ready by 2011 or 2012 and a commercial engine available within a “decade.” Meanwhile, other companies are pushing to develop technology based on nuclear fusion. They include Burnaby, British Columbia-based General Fusion and the super-stealthy Tri-Alpha Energy, which reportedly raised $40 million in venture funding in 2007. Still, Helion’s Wallace believes his company can commercialize more quickly and cheaply than its competitors.
Nuclear fusion is often confused with its more politicized cousin, nuclear fission, but the two are distinct. In fusion, two light atomic nuclei are fused together to form a heavier nucleus and in the process release a large amount of heat energy. Unlike with fission, which produces radioactive waste, the by-product of fusion is environmentally safe. Wallace said that’s one reason why generating electricity from fusion will be cheaper than current nuclear power, which is based on fission—companies using it wouldn’t have the safety and regulatory hurdles to overcome.
As exciting as Helion’s technology is, it’s going to take a lot of money before its fusion engines start replacing coal. The company predicts it will need $100 million on top of the $20 million it currently seeks to go from full-scale prototype to commercial production.